Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) is a service learning course for students in the College of Engineering. Students enrolled in the course work on a design project with partners from the Purdue community. Professors Edward Coyle and Leah Jamieson started EPICS in 1995, and the course has since been offering students the invaluable opportunity to learn applied design skills while also giving back to the community. The course also provides an excellent opportunity for enhancing students’ information literacy!
When Megan Sapp Nelson, an Associate Professor of Library Science, became involved with advising sections of EPICS, she observed that some of her students’ struggles with the design process could be alleviated by encouraging and facilitating better approaches to using information. Early in the design process, students interview their project partners to determine their needs. Students often went into these interviews unprepared, and then immediately jumped to a solution without first figuring out specifications. As a result, sometimes students would have major problems in their designs as they got further along in their projects. This often meant spending a lot of unnecessary time and energy going back and addressing issues. Sapp Nelson’s began leading students through a session to learn about the art of the “reference interview,” a technique used to explore an interviewee’s needs. While this did help the interview process, it did not prevent students from rushing into the design.
To address the problem holistically, Sapp Nelson structured a four week module that aligned with the format of the early phase of the project that embedded an information literacy focus into the design process. In the first week, students work on creating their interview plan. In the second week, they synthesize the information from their interview into a set of constraints, and then conduct research into identifying similar solutions which already exist for the proposed problems or similar problems. In the third week, students come together to work with the information gained through this background research to create decision matrices for identifying specific features that might be relevant to the project. This resulted in a more formal comparison of the features the students identified to the requirements outlined by their project partners. Finally, students would begin brainstorming or “graphic prototyping.” They would determine effective designs that would meet the constraints they had developed the week before. An early examination of the impact of adding the information literacy components to the course suggest that students’ experiences with the design process is smoother and that their projects are functioning more efficiently.